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Sat July 1, 2006
Arcane, maybe. Interesting, always.
Like foreplay, wordplay such as crossword puzzles can be enjoyed by everyone, but few are truly great at it. In the documentary Wordplay, the gifted geeks of almost acrostics are interviewed, both the wizards who create and the wackos who play. They are under the aegis of the editor of the New York Times crossword, Will Shortz, who oversees the annual competition. (Jon Stewart, an avid puzzler, calls him the "Errol Flynn" of crosswords.)
A discovery is that these puzzle heads are not altogether weird, in fact much less so than Star-trek or gaming conventioneers. Shortz, who appears regularly on National Public Radio, describes them as "intelligent" and "cultured," exactly the words I'd apply to the NPR audience for my "It's Movie Time" radio show on WCBE 90.5 FM in Columbus, Ohio. Most are honestly in love with words and willing to win or lose in a competition more about a love than a battle: For instance, top contenders approach the judges to rectify a miscalculation they see for a fellow contestant; the 20-year old 2005 winner is a source of interest and almost pride for seasoned competitors who know that winning is partly what you know and are amazed that a 20 year old just shouldn't have the knowledge base or experience.
A strength of this doc is its insights into the inner workings of the puzzles. Director Patrick Creadon has a crossword creator devise a puzzle based on the title of the film, and we end up learning about the rules of the black/white block ratio and line symmetry. Arcane, maybe. Interesting, always.
Wordplay is another in a recent line of docs about words, especially spelling bees. The crucial difference between crossworders and spellers is that more than memorization is essential, including the ability to decide what part of the puzzle to attack first and the meanings behind the words, an essential component different from the rote of the bees. While parents bring heavy investment in their children's success to the bees, in crosswords there is rarely a moment of regret or jealousy in a loss.
A puzzler upset with one of the week's crosswords accused editor Shortz of being "sick, sick, sick." Shortz appreciates the passion. Although the film sags with repetition and lack of anticipation for the competition, it is a delightful look at what in the end is a very specialized business. We can't help but feel ourselves the object of a scornful retort from one of the puzzlers to her boyfriend: "Well, what are you the best in the country at?"
John DeSando teaches film at Franklin University and co-hosts WCBE 90.5's "It's Movie Time," which can be heard streaming at www.wcbe.org Fridays at 3:01 pm and 8:01 pm and on demand anytime. Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.RR.com